Whether you’re sick to death of the word “blog” or have no idea what it means, you are equally abreast of the times, linguistically speaking. Merriam-Webster, the U.S. dictionary publisher, recently declared it the most looked-up term on its Internet site this year, not counting profanities and perennial problem words such as “affect” and “effect.” Commentators at once dubbed 2004 the Year of the Blog.

To those of you who failed to seek enlightenment from Merriam-Webster, the word doesn’t signify either the Year of the Especially Bad Mood or the Year of the Obscure but Potent Scandinavian Beverage. Blog, now happily free of quotation marks, is a contraction of the phrase “Weblog” and denotes “a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments and often hyperlinks.”

(Yes, we realize some of you don’t know what a hyperlink is. But again, Merriam-Webster is helpful. “Hyperlink: an electronic link providing direct access from one distinctively marked place in a hypertext or hypermedia document to another in the same or a different document.” And if you don’t know what a hypertext or hypermedia document is, you probably don’t care what a blog is, either.) In nondictionary lingo, then, a blog is the modern person’s soapbox, only better. Just as Britons with opinions — but with no opinion column — have long preached to the crowds at Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park every Sunday, their more technologically adept brethren pitch their views to the whole planet, or those bits of it with an Internet connection and a lot of free time.

And they are gradually making connections. According to a blog-watching dot-com named Technorati, the number of blogs in existence is nearing 5 million. Even though fewer than a quarter of those are regularly maintained, and the most popular political blog scores just 0.005 percent of all daily Internet visits, that is still a lot of unfiltered opinion with a theoretically limitless reach.

The wonder is how lively, informative and influential many of those blogs are. As in every field of human endeavor, talent rises to the top like cream, and silliness and self-indulgence sink to the bottom, quickly bereft of an audience. Indeed, the best blogs have an almost cultlike status. Regular browsers speak of needing their daily opinion fix and say they prefer the informality, irreverence and openness of the blog (readers can respond and argue online) to the comparatively stodgy format of the traditional newspaper column or editorial, where views are handed down from on high and the only avenue for reader response is the letter to the editor, otherwise known as the black hole.

Certainly, as newspaper circulation rates edge downward everywhere, publishers are being forced to ponder the growing popularity of blogs as they try to fashion a defense. It is not enough simply to put a newspaper online, as most have done, although that is essential. Sooner or later, print editions may fade away and most people will get their news online, which means publishers will have to figure out how to make more money from their online versions. That, of course, means luring and keeping younger readers. And to do that, they will have to try and replicate the blog’s appeal, offering not just easy things like hyperlinks but the critical element of interactivity.

Still, given the numbers above, the blog didn’t make it to the top of Merriam-Webster’s word pile (and the Oxford English Dictionary’s a year earlier) by virtue of popularity. If it was that popular, there wouldn’t have been so many people needing to look it up. It was more a result of its political influence, which was way out of proportion to the size of the blogosphere, as blogs in general are known.

According to a Merriam-Webster spokesman, the word began appearing in mainstream media in 1999 but really only came into its own with this year’s U.S. presidential campaigns. Much of the more extreme rhetoric from both Democratic and Republican supporters aired on blogs before trickling into the mainstream. Sometimes a tactic might never have gained traction without the boost of blog gossip. The campaign to discredit Sen. John F. Kerry’s service in Vietnam is an example that springs to mind. It will probably take historians years to determine the precise degree of influence the humble blog had on this election.

Ultimately, the word itself piqued the general public’s curiosity as much as the politics du jour; hence its rapid elevation. But unlike “chad,” a dictionary favorite from the last presidential election, “blog” is bigger than a single election cycle — bigger, indeed, than America. A tool that gives so many private people a public voice is not likely to disappear soon.

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